Train Your Dog to Accept Hugs

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I confess – I love hugging dogs as much as the next human. Of the three Miller dogs, two love to be hugged (Kai the Kelpie and Bonnie the Scorgidoodle), while Lucy the Corgi, has made her no-hugging preferences abundantly clear with avoidance behaviors, so I don’t even try. If we didn’t have at least one dog who loved hugs, I might need to teach one to at least tolerate them.

This process involves either classical conditioning (giving a puppy a positive association with something she doesn’t already have an opinion of), or classical counter-conditioning (giving a dog a new association with something she already has a negative opinion of). Either way, the process is similar, but it may go slower if you are working to change an existing opinion rather than simply installing one where none previously exists.

1. Sit next to your sitting dog, with a handful of tasty treats in the hand farthest from your dog. (Assuming your dog is on your left side, have treats in your right hand. If you prefer the other side, just flip the following directions.)

pat miller dog trainer

2. Touch the top of your dog’s shoulders (the withers) briefly with your left hand. While your hand is touching her, immediately deliver a high-value treat to her mouth with your right hand. Remove both hands at the same time.

3. Repeat the brief touch-then-feed process until you see your dog brighten happily and turn to look for the arrival of the treat when you touch her. (Note: If you can’t get her happy at this step, don’t go any further. You have three choices now: a) Seek the help of a positive reinforcement-based trainer to help you with the process; b) Resign yourself to hugging other humans instead of your dog; c) Look to adopt a second dog into your family who clearly loves being hugged.)

4. Gradually increase the length of time you touch her. As you increase the length of touch, feed, pause, then feed again. Feed multiple times as the length of touch-time increase.

5. Now touch your dog on her far shoulder, just the other side of the withers, and immediately feed. This will start to move your arm over her back as is you are beginning to hug her.

6. Repeat this touch as you did with the withers touch, gradually increasing length of time and multiple feedings as she looks happy about the process.

7. Slowly increase the approximations of your touch toward an actual hug, making sure you get a consistent positive response at each step before proceeding further.

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WDJ's Training Editor Pat Miller, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, grew up in a family that was blessed with lots of animal companions: dogs, cats, horses, rabbits, goats, and more, and has maintained that model ever since. She spent the first 20 years of her professional life working at the Marin Humane Society in Marin County, California, for most of that time as a humane officer and director of operations. She continually studied the art and science of dog training and behavior during that time, and in 1996, left MHS to start her own training and behavior business, Peaceable Paws. Pat has earned a number of titles from various training organizations, including Certified Behavior Consultant Canine-Knowledge Assessed (CBCC-KA) and Certified Professional Dog Trainer - Knowledge Assessed (CPDT-KA). She also founded Peaceable Paws Academies for teaching and credentialing dog training and behavior professionals, who can earn "Pat Miller Certified Trainer" certifications. She and her husband Paul and an ever-changing number of dogs, horses, and other animal companions live on their 80-acre farm in Fairplay, Maryland.

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